I got the call late the evening before. A request to photography the United States Olympic Team the next day for the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee.
Sure. I’m in.
The entire team was in Chicago for a day which began for them as part of Oprah’s huge live television broadcast in Millennium Park following the Beijing Games in 2008. Afterwards, the team would be piled into several red double decker buses for a short trip to the Hilton Hotel where I was waiting to photograph them along with a video crew and dozens of committee overseers.
I was to photograph them all, but my main assignment was to photograph the gold medal winning Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps while he was being interviewed for a video that would be used as part of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. Chicago eventually lost out to Rio for the 2016 games, but that’s another story.
The athletes were herded off of the buses past fans that had been waiting at the hotel entrance and we all proceeded to a ballroom that was converted into a temporary studio for Michael’s interview. As with anyone of his celebrity, there were a lot of people tugging at him for his attention. But even after the circus of an Oprah live broadcast, he was cool and accommodating. A genuinely nice guy putting up with a lot of madness of the day.
I was to stand by just out of camera range, ready to photograph Michael whenever the video crew took a break for a moment to refine the questions or review what they had shot. It turned out that I had a total of four minutes with him. Two minutes during one break. One minute during a second break. And a final minute at the end of the interview before he was whisked away to be interviewed by another production.
I knew he was probably tired and jet-lagged. So when I had my first chance to photograph him, I quickly introduced myself.
“Hi, Michael. I’m Billy. May I make a few photographs of you?”
He smiled and said, “Sure,” even though we both knew he probably didn’t have much choice at the moment.
“Just relax and you don’t have to do anything special. I know you’d like a break, so I’ll just work and you can catch your breath,” I offered.
He smiled and nodded and I began composing, knowing I might only have a few more seconds before the video crew was ready to go again and I’d have to jump out of the way. The video crew had set up a white seamless sweep and although I would have liked to have photographed him in a more interesting environment, sometimes you don’t have any choice but to go with what you’re given.
I began to photograph Michael in a very casual manner. He was sitting in the chair that was set up for the interview and I just let him be and moved around in front of him. I wanted to have the photographs feel a little introspective, not as much looking at my camera as much as documenting him in a relatively quiet moment when the roomful of people were otherwise occupied with the next round of questions.
All too soon, the first break was over and I stepped out of the way to let the video crew get back to work.
In a few more minutes I had another chance to jump in and continued my work.
I jumped back out again after a minute while they wrapped up the interview, while I took a moment to figure out what I wanted to do next.
Finally the video shoot wrapped and I had another minute to jump back in.
I was pretty sure I already got the portrait of him that I was after, so… I had to ask.
“Michael, I know I’m the millionth photographer to ask you to do the arms thing. But would you do it again for me, please?”
He laughed a little sheepishly and outstretched his unusually long arms, one of the reasons he had collected so many gold medals. So long in fact that I had to quickly step back and recompose my shot because his fingertips were extended past the edges of the paper seamless. Oh well. I can photoshop the edges if I need to, I thought to myself.
Knowing he was ready to move onto the next media event, I quickly thanked him and it was over almost as quickly as it began.
Michael was great. Very patient. Very accommodating in the circus that was constantly traveling with him. I thought to myself, he really could have gotten away with not being as nice. He could have been less generous and no one would have blamed him. But he wasn’t. If he was feeling frustrated with being treated like a zoo animal, he certainly didn’t show it.
Now after seeing him break all of the records he did at the London 2012 games this year, it was nice to remember a very brief time I spent with him near the beginning. One of the greatest athletes in history.
My four minutes with Michael Phelps.